Not many people remember the original soap operas – never-ending US radio serials, like The Archers but relentlessly commercial and called soap opera because the sponsors mostly tried to sell you soap. (James Thurber has a long funny survey of the soaps in The Beast in Me and Other Animals.) The story quality was low, the cliché count high. Naturally uninspired hack Westerns were soon dubbed horse operas, and in 1941 Wilson Tucker – himself a nifty SF author – coined the phrase "space opera" for the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn."
Attitudes change: New Space Opera as written by the late lamented Iain M. Banks is ever so highly respected in SF circles. But the Western connection used to be too close for comfort when pulp-magazine authors recycled horse opera as space opera, with six-shot rayguns and radium claim-jumping on the Milky Way's wild western frontier:
"Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing ... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.
"'Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,' the tall stranger lipped thinly. 'You don't know it, but this is your last space trip.'"
That's not the real thing but a cunning spoof. From the 1950s, Galaxy magazine ran a regular ad with Western and space-opera versions of the same hack story opening (guess which appears above), plus the strident claim YOU'LL NEVER SEE IT IN GALAXY. Never mind the critics who rudely retorted that you did occasionally see it in Galaxy, and not just in ads.
In fact there are some good SF westerns, like Bob Shaw's serious "Skirmish on a Summer Morning" or – played for laughs – Poul Anderson's and Gordon Dickson's "The Sheriff of Canyon Gulch", in which impressionable alien teddy-bears adopt Wild West ways, and Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters", where a stray Martian invasion cylinder from The War of the Worlds lands in 1890s Texas to bedevil the local sheriff. But mostly it was Bat Durston stuff.
Bat came suddenly to mind, a nasty habit of his, when I read The New Yorker's explanation of how an outright SF novel – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – crashed the exclusive "literary fiction" shortlist of the US National Book Awards. It's "set in a familiar genre universe, in which a pandemic has destroyed civilization. The twist – the thing that makes Station Eleven National Book Award material – is that the survivors are artists."
If that's all it takes....
"Bat Durston, have you gone plumb loco?" gritted the spacepoke's raw-boned pardner Lefty, scratching his ear with his snub-nosed, six-chambered neutron depolariser. "What in tarnation you doing there?"
"Reckon I gonna need a mite more gamboge in them thar highlights," drawled Durston lazily, squeezing paint from a space-rations tube on to his big rugged palette. "If art's what them danged National Book Award judges want, then I guess art is what they gonna get."
Smoke curled from Bat's stogie as, narrow-eyed and grim-jawed, he plied his brush with the speed of a striking sex-crazed strooka. Time ambled by like an ornery space-dogie. Outside, space-tumbleweed rolled across great vacuum-prairies, past the floating mesas of the western asteroid belt.
"Shucks," Lefty spat at last, "a five-year-old kid could paint better than that."
Bat grinned a wide, nonrepresentational space-grin. "Right. So I'm figgerin' we're not just fixed with the NBA – this here is a cinch for the Turner Prize!"
David Langford is spurring his Mustang-class star-speedster to head off the greenskins at the pass.